When the painter met the poet

A portrait of the late John Montague by artist Colin Davidson will be unveiled in UCC today.
John P O’Sullivan explains how a project that had begun in a casual conversation eventually came to fruition.

The portrait of the late John Montague by Colin Davidson. It was donated to UCC by Gerry Wrixon.

In April 2014 I drove to Bangor, Co. Down to interview the artist Colin Davidson for a newspaper profile I was writing.

Colin has been in the news recently for a portrait of Queen Elizabeth and for his painting of Angela Merkel that appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s person of the year edition.

At that stage, three years ago, Davidson was best-known for his portraits of the North’s leading literary lights: Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, and Paul Muldoon, among others.

Having lunch with Davidson after the interview I asked why he had omitted the Tyrone-bred John Montague from his pantheon of painted poets.

I had been an admirer and acquaintance of the poet since I first encountered him in UCC in the early 1970s.

I remember him bringing a sexual dimension to Wordsworth’s poetry that caused some fluttering in the dovecotes — especially in the serried ranks of nuns that filled the first two rows in the lecture hall. Montague found Wordsworth’s ‘Nutting’, a particularly juicy source of speculation.

Through beds of matted fern, and tangled thickets,/Forcing my way, I came to one dear nook/Unvisited...

More significantly, Montague was generous with his leisure time and often held court in Henchey’s pub in St Luke’s. He inspired and encouraged a number of aspirant young poets, including Thomas McCarthy, Sean Dunne and Theo Dorgan.

Davidson said he’d love to paint Montague but had difficulty getting hold of him as he was mostly out of the country.

I offered to see what I could do to enable a sitting. Given Montague’s age it was agreed that it should be sooner rather than later.

He had been living in Nice for a number of years but I knew he returned every summer to his house in Ballydehob. I got his contact details and sent off a speculative email. A number of calls and emails ensued.

Apart from a very brief word with Montague all of the dialogue was conducted with Elizabeth Wassell — his formidably protective third wife. There was a window of opportunity in late August 2014 when they were in Schull.

The draughty house in Ballydehob had apparently been abandoned for the comforts of a hotel.

Before the appointed day for the sitting I got a chance to see the great man in action one more time.

An old UCC sparring partner, Eamon O’Donoghue, arranged to bring the poet over from his French base to do a reading during the Claregalway Garden Festival in July 2014.

The bold Dr O’Donoghue had bought and heroically refurbished an old Norman castle in thetown and this was the venue for the reading. I met Montague beforehand. He was having a glass of white wine and some cheese in an anteroom. He looked frail but still retained that roguish twinkle.

He’s never been the greatest of readers, his mild stutter often intruding, so I was a bit apprehensive about how he might perform. I needn’t have worried.

Inspired perhaps by a very large audience, or the wine, he gave a fine robust reading — even cracking the odd joke. The last I saw of him was with his diminutive wife and the estimable poet Mary O’Malley who were supporting him on either side as they led him to the car that would take back to his Galway hotel.

A couple of months later, in August 2014, the portrait sitting happened in Grove House in Schull, Co Cork. Davidson was granted an hour during which he took photographs and did a number of preparatory sketches.

The sitting went well according to the artist. Apparently the two Northern boys found common cause in their stutters — Davidson also has a mild stammer. I looked forward to seeing the end result.

Following the completion of the sizeable 127cm x 117cm portrait, Davidson invited me up to Bangor to check out the finished article. My daughter, who accompanied me, was well impressed with the portraits of Ed Sheeran and Brad Pitt that lay about the studio. There, amidst them on a easel, was the painting of Montague.

Colin, who had only met him that once was eager to hear conformation, that he had done him justice.

His fears were groundless. He had captured perfectly that sardonic Montague expression and the inevitable twinkle in the eye. I was delighted with it and so subsequently, and more significantly, were Montague and his wife.

Now, the next job was to get somebody to buy it for UCC which seemed its ideal home. When approaches through official channels didn’t bear fruit, I decided to seek out a private individual to donate it to the college. Ideally it would be a UCC alumnus, who liked art and poetry and who recognised Montague’s contribution to the institution.

I went first to the wealthiest member of my extended family who had studied at UCC, as had generations of his family before him. He told me, with regret, that he had been active lately in the property market and couldn’t help because of his “unimpressive liquidity”.

I also drew a blank amongst my old CBC buddies who listened patiently but baulked at the five-figure sum which seemed to confirm their feeling that art was a conspiracy against the laity. Time went by and sadly Montague died in December 2016 without seeing the work appropriately housed.

However, at the funeral of a relation of mine in Wilton in early 2017, I ran into solicitor and art lover Michael O’Connell who suggested I contact Gerry Wrixon, former president of UCC. He had been a friend and admirer of Montague’s.

I also knew, from my time in Cork, that he was an avid art collector. I sent him a detailed email — enclosing an image of the piece. He responded quickly and generously and the deed was done.

So now, three years on, all legendary obstacles overcome, Montague’s sardonic smile and twinkling eye will be gazing down on the toiling undergraduates of the institution he graced for many years.


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